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The Week In Russia: The Dramatic Pace Of Regress

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been unable to destroy Ukraine, but he “will be remembered as the man who really set out to destroy his own country,” author Anne Applebaum says.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been unable to destroy Ukraine, but he “will be remembered as the man who really set out to destroy his own country,” author Anne Applebaum says.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has killed more than 500 children -- possibly many more. One Kremlin foe is handed a 19-year prison term while another, sentenced to 25 years in prison on a treason conviction after criticizing President Vladimir Putin and the war, draws parallels with the Stalin-era persecution of citizens branded “enemies of the people.”

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

A Terrible Statistic

Almost 18 months after Russia launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine, the war – at first almost unthinkable despite months of warning signs that it was on the way – has become a grim fact, an ongoing occurrence that throws up horrors daily but is also the mundane stuff of maps, schedules, daily planning meetings at media outlets, and more. While it is obviously anything but normal, it has been normalized to some degree, at least.

At the same time, there are developments that drive home the fact that there is nothing normal about it, and these are captured in things like news stories, photographs, videos. Even statistics, like this one: At least 500 children have been killed, and more than 1,000 wounded, since the large-scale invasion began on February 24, 2022, according to the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General’s Office.

Like the UN office that counts casualties and said this month that 9,396 civilians had been confirmed killed, the Ukrainian authorities stressed that the figures are incomplete, largely because of the difficulty gathering information from Russian-occupied areas, and that the actual toll may be much higher.

In any case, it is rising as Russia pushes ahead with its unprovoked invasion despite numerous setbacks and the failure to achieve Putin’s goal of swiftly – or even not so swiftly -- subjugating Ukraine.

On the same day as the figure of at least 500 was announced, officials said that two more children were dead: a 12-year-old boy and a 23-day-old girl who were killed along with their parents in a strike on their village in the Kherson region.

The children who have been killed have included the 14-year-old twin sisters killed in a missile strike on a pizza restaurant in the Donbas in June, the 4-year-old girl with Down syndrome killed in a cruise missile strike on the west-central city of Vinnytsya, far from the front lines, and a child whose mother and sibling survived an attack in March in Mariupol, which was razed by the time Russian forces captured it in April. And many, many more.

And in addition to the killings, Russia has taken many children across the border from Ukraine – a practice that led the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for Putin in March. He stands accused of “the war crime of unlawful deportation of population (children) and that of unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.”

'Destroying Modern Russia'

While Putin has destroyed many lives in Ukraine, he has not destroyed Ukraine.

But he just might destroy Russia, Anne Applebaum, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Gulag: A History, told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service in an interview.

“I don't think there's any question that Putin will be remembered as the man who really set out to destroy his own country,” Applebaum said. “And apart from what he did to Ukraine, apart from what he did to Georgia, apart from what he did to Chechnya, apart from what he did to Syria, you know, this is somebody who has worsened the living standards, and freedom, and culture of Russia itself.”

Putin has “brought back a form of dictatorship that I think most Russians had thought they'd left behind,” she said. “Remember the Putin regime for the first decade that Putin was president had elements of freedom in it. It wasn’t a totalitarian state.

“There was no thought police, no thought control of the kind people had known from the Soviet era. He is now slowly bringing that back. So, this is a crushing, not just of dissent, but a crushing of all politics, all imagination, all culture, all activity, anything independent,” Applebaum said. “What he's really doing is really destroying, you know, modern Russia.”

Perhaps the most obvious evidence of the crushing of politics is the long and continuing prosecution of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who was in and out of jail over peaceful street protests for more than a decade and has now been behind bars since January 2021, when he was arrested upon return to Russia after recovering in Germany from a near-fatal nerve agent poisoning he blames on Putin.

Navalny has published evidence suggesting that Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) poisoned him. On August 17, the United States imposed sanctions on four men it said were linked to the FSB and were involved in his poisoning in Siberia in August 2020. One of them is Konstantin Kudryavtsev, an agent Navalny later said he had he had duped into revealing that the FSB was the culprit.

On August 4, Navalny was convicted on three criminal counts related to accusations of extremism, which he and his supporters dismiss as absurd, and sentenced to 19 years in a harsh, maximum-security “special regime” prison. But that’s not all, or it might not be: He may also face trial on terrorism charges, which could result in an additional prison term.

Ballots And Prison Bars

Navalny has been convicted in three major trials – not including retrials – in the past decade. The charges he has faced have ranged from economic crimes such as fraud and embezzlement to, now, extremism and potentially terrorism.

What does that have to do with crushing politics?

Well, it’s widely suspected that the real reason he is being separated from society is that the Kremlin fears he poses a political challenge to Putin, who seems to be unable or unwilling to utter Navalny’s name in public.

Navalny was allowed to run for Moscow mayor in 2013, but he was barred from the ballot – because of his criminal record – when he tried to go up against Putin in the most recent presidential contest, in 2018. The extremism charges that led to his conviction this month were related in part to a nationwide network of offices that he established as would-be campaign headquarters for the election.

Nineteen years would be the longest sentence handed down to a Kremlin opponent since the Soviet era – if not for another trial that ended this year, as the Russian state’s already intense clampdown on dissent intensified further following the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a vocal Putin foe who has spoken out against the war on Ukraine and has campaigned in the West for sanctions against Russians who violate human rights, was convicted of treason in April – part of a surge of treason cases since the invasion – and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Sent To The Gulag

Like Navalny, Kara-Murza – who lived part-time in the United States in recent years – was arrested after returning from abroad. Despite the threat of prosecution, he came back to Russia in April 2022, after delivering a speech in Arizona in which he accused the "dictatorial regime in the Kremlin" of committing "war crimes." He was speaking about a year before the ICC issued the arrest warrant for Putin.

And like Navalny, Kara-Murza believes he was poisoned as retribution for his opposition to the Russian state.

On July 31, an appeals court upheld the verdict and sentence against Kara-Murza, as expected.

In an August 15 column in The Washington Post – dateline: Pretrial Detention Center No. 5, Moscow – Kara-Murza wrote that after a trial that was held behind closed doors, it was a “special treat” to “see the faces, smiles, tears and thumbs-ups of my friends, colleagues and supporters, as well as journalists and diplomats who packed the courtroom.”

Officially, Kara-Murza’s trial was closed to the public because his case was classified. However, he wrote, “The real reason – as prosecutor Boris Loktionov candidly stated at the appeals hearing last month – was ‘to prevent Kara-Murza from using the court as a political platform and publicly calling our president, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, a murderer.’”

When his prosecution began, Kara-Murza wrote, “I expected my experience to be similar to that of the dissidents of the 1960s and 1970s whose struggles against Soviet totalitarianism I have studied and documented.

“But Russia’s regress under Putin has taken a much more dramatic pace,” he wrote, adding that his trial “had much more in common with the handling of ‘enemies of the people’ under Josef Stalin” and invoking his grandfather, who he said had been “arrested and sent to the gulag” in 1937, during the Great Terror, for “expressing hostility towards the leaders of the party and the government.”

“The sentence completed the parallel,” he wrote. “Before me, the last time political prisoners in this country had received 25-year terms was at the end of Stalin’s reign.”

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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About This Newsletter

Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

To receive The Week In Russia in your inbox, click here.

And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on iTunes or on Google Podcasts.

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